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Indonesian experimental electronic music and the gamelan connection

“A cultural treasure that resonates with the soul of Indonesia”

Words by Cam Khalid


Cam Khalid is a Singapore-born, London-based extroverted introvert who likes her coffees iced, puns intended, and bass heavy. She has written all things music for Time Out, The Luna Collective, Paste Magazine, and more.


The first time I heard the ethereal tinkling sound of gamelan was on a small island in Indonesia: Tanjung Pinang. I was only six when I witnessed a Javanese gamelan troupe wielding bronze metallophones, gongs, flutes, and drums to create an intricate tapestry of sounds that danced through ever-shifting tempos, all choreographed to the hypnotic guidance of wooden hand drums. The spellbinding sonic experience made such an impact on me that I remember replaying it in my mind later that night before bed.


Never did I dream that I would revisit a similar tune again over a decade later – this time far from South East Asia at an underground shindig in London. I was surrounded by a sweaty crowd moving to a heavy bass mix which sampled the bell and gong reverberations. This marked the start of my journey into the captivating synergy between gamelan and electronic music, both of which share an emphasis on layering and progressive composition.


Fast forward a few years later when the familiar sound struck me again at an avant-garde music festival in Singapore. A live performance showcasing the fusion of drum and bass with the hypnotic rhythms of gamelan percussion and chimes sent me spiralling into a trance-like state. There was no doubt that there were mystic powers behind gamelan.


Legend has it that Sang Hyang Guru, the divine ruler of Java, invented the gong to summon the gods, becoming a vital part of the original gamelan set. In 2021, the traditional sound was inscribed onto the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. It’s a customary element in numerous folk and religious rites, formal ceremonies, as well as dance and shadow puppet shows in Indonesia.


The more I uncover, the more I realise that it’s far beyond traditional music; it's a cultural treasure that resonates with the soul of Indonesia. This ancient ensemble music of the Javanese, Sundanese, and Balinese communities features tuned percussion instruments, drums, gongs, metallophones, xylophones, flutes, vocals, and strings. Each contributes variant melodies within a distinct scale framework, allowing for the creation of intricate, dynamic compositions that can transition from frenetic to serene. 


Beyond cultural traditions, the hypnotic rhythms continue to weave through contemporary music, finding a fresh resonance in today's music scene. From fusion jazz to pop and electronic genres, gamelan adds a unique and culturally rich layer to Indonesia's modern musical landscape. And the experimental rave scene is no exception.


Driven by the enigmatic allure of ritualistic trance, Indonesia's avant-garde pioneers are reinventing the primal vitality of ancestral traditions. Visionaries such as Senyawa, Setabuhan, and Gabber Modus Operandi (GMO) defy musical conventions, seamlessly blending distinctly Indonesian elements with rugged industrial nuances.


Despite their name, Bali-based duo GMO’s sound isn't gabber in Europe’s EDM sense, but rather an exploration of gamelan scales at lightning speeds sans sampling. Staying true to their Indonesian roots, they incorporate native dance genres like funkot, dangdut koplo, and penceng while drawing inspiration from the country’s heavy metal culture and traditional gamelan music. 


They tend to steer clear of Western club trends, yet their distinctive approach has left an indelible mark on the global dance music scene. Recently, they collaborated with Björk on her upcoming avant-pop album Fossora, showcasing their boundary-pushing, genre-bending approach even further.


Unlike GMO, Jakarta natives Weird Genius take notes from the poster boys of 2013 EDM such as Skrillex, Avicii, and Zedd. However, they challenge EDM conventions by infusing their music with Balinese gamelan sounds and featuring shadow puppetry and traditional dances into music videos such as ‘DPS’ and ‘Lathi’.


Fellow Jakarta electronic mavens Uwalmassa also utilise the best of both worlds. Their compositional approach draws inspiration from the tenets of free jazz, embracing improvisation, fluctuating tempos, and emotional depth. In their creative hands, the lush tonalities of gamelan are distilled into a minimalist palette, featuring resonating synth arpeggios. The outcome is an experimental yet dancefloor-friendly sonic landscape that reimagines jungle and tribal-infused ambient techno within the intricate scales and rhythms of gamelan.


On the other end of the spectrum, there are Senyawa and Setabuhan. Whilst these two aren’t dance music purveyors, they still manage to intrigue electronic fans worldwide with their blend of ambient, metal, hardcore, and noise. Yogyakarta duo Senyawa also uses throat singing, tribal rhythms, and ritualistic trance with industrial textures akin to electronic trance music.


Setabuhan, on the other hand, revolves around rhythm and performance art. Their live shows include silat fighters engaged in aggression and physical interaction. But at the core of their artistry lies the Central Sulawesi’s balia healing ceremony, where shamans channel spirits to heal ailments. This ritual, serving as an act of worship and protection, features rhythmic gong and drum elements. Setabuhan skillfully incorporates these rhythms into their performances,  merging the worlds of music and spirituality.


Gamelan has also travelled far into the West where it has influenced classical composers such as Claude Debussy, Erik Satie, John Cage and Steve Reich. But only in the past decade or so has it entered the world of contemporary electronica. The likes of Aphex Twin, Kode9, Squarepusher and Four Tet have sampled, modified and experimented with gamelan’s multifarious drum sonorities, melodic patterns, and rhythmic intricacies with slick technological noise. The entrancing results have introduced the timeless tradition to the eager ears of a new generation of listeners around the world. 


For me, it has brought me back full circle as I returned to Indonesia just before the pandemic. This time in Bali where I stumbled upon a live DJ set, complete with a Balinese gamelan ensemble and dancers in gold sabuk, bold headpieces, and patterned sarongs. The fast tempos of Balinese gamelan were layered with heavy bass. The energy in the room was infectious. People seemed to have lost themselves in the music, and so did I. 


It made me rethink how ancient traditions can shape the contemporary sonic landscape of today. Whether it’s the enigma that surrounds gamelan or the reinvention of an age-old tradition, the fusion of gamelan and electronic music has birthed a greater appreciation for this cultural treasure.

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